Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a human rights and social change columnist for CNN Opinion. E-mail him at CTL@CNN.com or follow him on Twitter (@jdsutter), Facebook or Google+. This column contains language that may offend some readers.
Franklin County, Mississippi (CNN) -- Statistically speaking, Franklin County should be straighter than John Wayne eating Chick-fil-A. The middle-of-nowhere rectangle in southwest Mississippi -- known for its pine forests, hog hunting and an infamous hate crime -- is home to exactly zero same-sex couples, according to an analysis of census data.
In other words: It's a place where gays don't exist.
At least not on paper.
Before I visited Franklin County, I figured there must be gay people living in Straight County USA. But I didn't expect anyone to be open about it -- and with good reason. As part of this op-ed project, I recently ranked the Hospitality State as one of the least hospitable for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, based on its lack of legal protections. In addition to allowing gays and lesbians to be fired because of who they are, Mississippi is also gracious enough to let landlords evict gay residents.
Those are great incentives for a gay person to become invisible. And being invisible, of course, could mean avoiding census workers.
I drove to this place of rolling hills and misty valleys with a few questions on my mind: Can there really be such a thing as an all-straight county? If so, what is it like to be someone who never has met a gay person? Do you just watch "Glee" and figure it out?
If there are gay people in Franklin County, what keeps them hidden?
I spent a few days searching for answers before I realized I was making the wrong assumptions: It's not that gay people here (or anywhere really) want to be in the closet, necessarily. It's the rest of the world that pushes them in and shuts the door.
'Limits exist only in your mind'
My first mission in Franklin: looking for any superficial signs of gayness.
There's a gas station named ABBA and a purple hair salon called Sassy Fraz. In the window of the Bude Thrift Store, there's a piece of fabric with the words "LIMITS EXIST ONLY IN YOUR MIND" stitched on top of a rainbow. The Homochitto National Forest (insert middle-school laugh here) occupies about half of the county's land.
Other than that, Franklin County is pretty much the straightest-seeming place you could imagine. Its 8,000 residents (population density: 45 acres per person) are concentrated primarily in three towns: Bude, Meadville and Roxie.
Roxie's downtown is home to an empty swing set and about five rusted and abandoned buildings. One resident described it as a ghost town in the making and told me I could take a nap in the dirt road and would be safe all day because no cars would be coming through. It looks like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. A zombie wouldn't seem out of place. Bude has a train depot and a hardware store with a sign in the window warning of alligator attacks ("... alligators should not be fed or molested in any way. Dogs can be a food source for alligators.") Camo print is everywhere. Meadville, the county seat, boasts a restaurant called The Feed Mill, which specializes in feeding bread pudding to people, not animals. A convenience store between towns keeps pickled pig lips next to the cash register.
It's a far cry from Chelsea or the Castro.
Racially, the county mirrors the rest of Mississippi: 64% white and 35% black. Residents are proud of the fact that there's only one school in the area, which means the kids all are educated together, as opposed to in segregated private schools. Housing is not as integrated. Cross over the railroad tracks by the sawmill in Bude and you find yourself in "The Quarters," as in "slave quarters," according to some residents. That's the primarily black area of town. Tell white residents you plan to go and they'll ask why you're not taking a gun.
Jim Crow doesn't seem so far gone in Franklin County.
In 2007, national news crews descended on the area after a local man, James Ford Seale, a reported Ku Klux Klan member, was convicted on federal charges of kidnapping and conspiracy in connection with the 1964 deaths of two black men. The two 19-year-olds, according to prosecutors, were abducted near Meadville; they were beaten in the national forest before being drowned in the Mississippi River, with an engine block, iron weights and railroad ties pulling them into the depths. Seale died in prison in 2011.
"These allegations are a painful reminder of a terrible time in our country, a time when some people viewed their fellow Americans as inferior and as a threat based only on the color of their skin," then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said in 2007.
Ask pretty much anyone in Franklin County about race relations, meanwhile, and they'll tell you things are just fine.
Hours pass before anyone mentions the killings.
'Everybody knows everybody'
The same sort of knowing denial applies to gay people.
A few Franklin County residents were happy to more or less confirm what I had read from the Williams Institute at UCLA: no gays here.
Some of them were nice about it.
Dorothy Creech, a 74-year-old woman who lives in a big white house with two rocking chairs on the porch, said she never has encountered a gay person in the flesh, but she wouldn't be bothered by it if she did, partly because she loves "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." "I don't agree with her lifestyle, but I wouldn't hold it against her," Creech said of the dance-happy, lesbian talk-show host. Gay people would have a fine time of it if they did live here, she said, since folks are so friendly to people of all types.
Others were less open to the idea of gays in their midst.
When I brought up the topic with a gray-haired woman I met in front of the grocery store in Meadville, she basically told me gay people don't exist -- like, at all.
"I don't believe in them kind of people. I don't believe in it," she said. "We don't need that same-sex marriage. That is wrong!"
"Y'all know what's right and wrong," she said, getting into her car and peering at me through the cracked driver's seat window. "Ask to find out (what's wrong) before you meet our God up in heaven. ... You have to be born again or you're not goin' up to heaven. There's only one other place to go and you don't want to go there, I'm sure. Take care!"
And she drove off.
I didn't even get a chance to tell her she was talking with a real, live gay person.
In a place where "everybody knows everybody," as Richard Pickett put it, very few seem willing to talk about the possibility of gay residents. You could blame that on the would-be gays. "If (a gay couple) did live together, they would probably keep it quiet," the 54-year-old told me. "They're not going to march up and down the street with a sign" announcing their homosexuality. The common Franklin County wisdom seems to be that gays, like unicorns or dragons, are living over the next pine-covered hill, out of sight and out of mind. They're not my kids. Not my neighbors. They're somewhere else. Maybe.
But here's the thing: There certainly are gay people in Franklin County. And for the most part, they're not in the closet. Many are happy to talk about it.
It's their neighbors and families who aren't.
'There are some things you just don't talk about'
Here's a striking example: Completely at random, I decided to chat with two men I saw talking outside a cute shop in the eastern part of the county. Both were wearing bright orange hats, the kind of unnatural-looking headgear that prevents hunters from mistaking each other for deer in the woods. One had a potbelly and was sitting on a bench. The other was slimmer and sat on a rusted, 1970s bicycle.
The larger man didn't want to go on camera ("My head looks like 'Shrek' in photos"), so I started a conversation with Slim, whose name is Willie Garner, age 60. I told him about the census-based statistic -- no gays here -- and asked if he thought that was correct.
"I don't have any knowledge one way or the other about that," Garner said. "It's not too much of a topic around here."
"There are some things you just don't talk about," the other man added.
It's kind of my job to make people talk about things like that, so I kept pressing:
Do you support same-sex marriage?
Garner: No, I don't.
The larger man chimed in. He'd been watching the interview from the entrance to the store, careful to stay in the shadows and out of a news camera's vision.
"I think people should be able to marry whoever they want to."
I walked over to ask why, in this place where most people seem cool to the idea of gay people, that he took such a progressive stance. He waved me inside the store.
"I'm gay myself, that's why," he said in that kind of intense whisper that conveys both urgency and secrecy. It's the tone you hear a lot in movies like "Argo."
I was stunned.
"It's hell, I'm telling you," he said.
Does the other guy know?
"Everybody knows who everybody is around here," he said. "I live openly, but I can't live with anybody or anything like that because they persecute you."
"We don't exist -- you didn't know that?" he added. "We're zero. We're nothing."
'Those legs don't look too hard to break'
Over a three-day period in Franklin County, CNN videographer Brandon Ancil and I met nine gay, lesbian or bisexual people -- four of them in cohabitating couples. None answered the census, however, either because they were confused by the questions, did not receive a form or weren't living together at the time of the survey.
In the case of the man in the store, who didn't want to be named because of fears it would hurt his business, he doesn't live with a partner because it would draw attention.
To the government and their towns, they're largely invisible.
But they do exist.
Finding the first gay couple in Franklin County was the trickiest. On our first day there, a Saturday in early January, Ancil and I struck out in about a dozen interviews. People told us either there weren't gay people here, that there were but they didn't know them -- or that they thought people looked gay but weren't sure about the facts of the matter.
With our options dwindling and the rainy, gray skies getting darker by the minute, we resorted to a bit of gay stereotyping. When we saw a hair salon in Meadville that was open on a Saturday (most businesses close by noon), we decided to give it a try. (I know, I know. It's trite and offensive. But we were getting desperate.)
Inside the salon, we met three football-ready men who didn't exactly want to give interviews. One threatened (in jest, I'm pretty sure) to come to Atlanta to rough me up if the story didn't show Franklin County in a positive and accurate light.
"Those legs don't look too hard to break," he said, eyeing my thighs, which are toothpicks to his tree trunks.
I laughed and lied by saying I could probably outrun him.
The owner of the funky, bright-colored salon, Jennifer Whitehead, 38, and her husband, Braxton, 37, were happy to have a conversation about their gay friends, two of whom live right up the road. Both of the Whiteheads said the Christian church is the foundation of this community, and that's why people here tend to be against gay rights. They hate the sin of being gay, they said, but don't hold that against a person.
"A sin is a sin," Jennifer said. "I sin every day."
She called up her friends, a lesbian couple whose hair she cuts and asked if they'd be willing to talk to the national media about their sexual orientation.
No way, I thought. Too easy.
"You have my keys?" she asked her husband.
"They're in the cup holder."
Soon she was leading us to the lesbian couple's house.
'This is my home'
Kristyn Lovett and Bobbie Jones live only a block or two from the main intersection in Meadville. An iron sign on their front lawn declares it "Happiness Hill."
Lovett, a 28-year-old with cropped hair and an affinity for PlayStation, deer hunting and camo jackets, greeted me in the front lawn with a handshake. I said I was excited to meet her given that the census says she doesn't exist. She laughed and told me she and Jones, 35, are completely open about their orientation. If they had gotten a census form, she said, they would have answered the survey truthfully.
The couple sat down on the porch swing in front of their 1890s home to chat about their gay lives in no-gay land. A dog kept plopping itself down in their laps while they talked about how good life is here: Family members include them in bonfires and backyard barbecues; they're raising a 12-year-old daughter; both are from small towns in Mississippi and feel attached to the land. "This is my home," Lovett said, "and I'm not going anywhere. You couldn't get me out of this county."
But, despite their insistence, being out has caused them subsurface problems.
While we were in Mississippi, the couple were planning a commitment ceremony. It was scheduled to be held last weekend in Florida, a state that, like Mississippi, bans same-sex marriage by constitutional amendment. The marriage won't mean anything on paper, they said, but at least it will be a nice setting, and it will affirm them as a family in the same way it would any other couple. I spoke with Lovett's mother, Angie Watson, a 43-year-old with platinum bangs, about the ceremony, which she planned to attend because she loves her daughter.
When the brides kiss, however, the mother planned to look away.
"It's a strange thing to me."
She can't stomach the idea of seeing her daughter kiss a woman.
'The only gay person in the world'
One gay rights activist I spoke with termed this condition the "Southern Closet." The door may be "wide open," Knol Aust told me, but gay people of Mississippi are still sitting inside "with all the clothes and high heels" -- the accouterments of gay life.
Straight people don't dare look in. And gays fear stepping out and being seen plainly. Both parties tolerate each other at a comfortable distance, with angst, hatred, ignorance and fear simmering just below the surface -- unspoken but always understood.
That may not sound so bad. It's better than being openly hostile, right? Gay people in Franklin County tend to describe gay-straight relations that way. We all get along, just so long as we don't talk about it. No need to flaunt it. It's not up for discussion.
Sometimes emotions do boil over, though.
Take Nicki Jones, 35. In a county where people leave doors unlocked and keys in their cars, she has installed a security camera over her porch. A neighbor several months ago sprinkled roofing tacks all over her gravel driveway, she said, to try to flatten her tires.
That same neighbor used to yell anti-gay slurs at her from his car.
"Small children will call you a 'faggot' around here," said Zac Case, a 24-year-old who isn't gay but has an ear for these sorts of things because he has friends who are.
In addition to "fag," which seems to be the preferred local term, gay men in Franklin County also are said to be "pissing glitter," "farting rainbows" or have "sugar in their tank." No one seemed too shy about sharing these slurs with me. One 20-year-old gay man, who asked not to be named for fear his dad, who knows about his sexual orientation, would kick him out of the house for publicizing it nationally, said he's been called "fag" so many times in Franklin County that he's "used to it."
There are other terms for gay women. Nicki Jones' partner, Christina Gibbs, 23, has co-workers who tell her that her boss calls her "cat licker" and "carpet muncher" when she's not in the office. Gibbs said the couple have a good life here in Franklin County. But they know to stay out of the spotlight. "It's the Deep South," she said. "You're in the Bible Belt. I'm not going to say people view you different. But you don't have a lot of friends, I guess."
The words also can turn into actions.
The man with the potbelly said his brother beat him up regularly -- breaking his nose once -- because he liked to read Shakespeare and pick flowers as a young kid. Boys in Franklin County play football and hunt. None of that sissy stuff.
"I thought I was the only gay person in the world for a long time," he said.
Nicki Jones also has been hurt with more than words. Her upper body movement is stiff, like that of an action figure, because, in 1994, while she was living in Covington, Tennessee, she was attacked and ultimately knocked off an embankment in her car after a man accused her of sleeping with his girlfriend. She hadn't, she said. But the injuries stay with her -- a long scar on her neck telling the story of four vertebrae that were fractured. The trauma led her into an addiction to pain pills that she said she was only able to kick in 2007.
"You're not going to see us holding hands around here," she said.
The county has been blessed with the gift of understatement.
'You can't subtract your upbringing'
Gay people, of course, react to this environment in various ways.
I met a 56-year-old artist who said he is trying to distance himself from "the lifestyle" because it conflicts with his religious beliefs.
"You can't subtract your upbringing," he said.
Nor do you dare ignore your surroundings.
Robbyn Raquel Wallace, 36, is without a girlfriend, in part, she said, because she doesn't want to upset the town -- and because raising her middle-school-age daughter has to be priority No. 1.
"I personally have never had a major problem with anybody about being gay," she said. "I'm not liberal. I'm very conservative, but I'm open. If you look on my Facebook page it says I'm interested in women. I'm open. I'm not closeted. I'm not going to hang a flag up and say, 'Hey! Everybody, look! There's me!' ... My first priority is being a mom."
The 20-year-old gay man -- the one who's afraid his dad could kick him out of the house -- said being teased for so long has made it easy for him to dish back insults instead of taking them to heart. "I had a girl tell me I'm going to hell because I'm gay. I said, 'Well, you're going to hell because you're a slut!' " he told me, beaming.
"I stay here because I love my little hometown," the man with the potbelly said. "It's beautiful here. I have my store and a garden. You learn to be tough here -- you really do."
He's also resolved to die alone here.
Another reaction is to live a full, happy life and hope others take notice. That's what the lesbian couple on "Happiness Hill" are trying to do. Lovett and Bobbie Jones know their parents don't approve of them 100%, but they do know they have their love. The couple don't try to stick out, but they're also not ashamed of who they are. They're not hiding.
That feels scary sometimes, but they think it's worth it.
They're pushing for change in a quiet, individual way -- the way Franklin County is more likely to accept. One night, I went with the couple to a backyard bonfire. (I thought that term might be an exaggeration, but it's literal; we're talking person-high flames.) Several family members were there. So were half-a-dozen friends. They sat on the back of a pickup, at the edge of the pine forest, beneath a sky pebbled with stars, listening to country music on the radio. (Ironic radio song of the night: "When a man loves a woman.") One man kept running around the back of the bonfire and throwing diesel on it unexpectedly, which led me to keep touching my face to check for eyebrows.
In this fire-and-booze-enabled environment, people were happy to talk about gay life. Some friends tossed out over-enthusiastic compliments to the couple, noting their bravery for living here openly. ("Y'all are f---ing bad f---ing a--! I love y'all to death!") Others teased them about their sexual orientation. One told Lovett she was like a man except for the fact that she was "born without one," referring to the male anatomy. But the couple don't really take offense at that sort of thing. Teasing means people are getting more comfortable with their sexual orientation.
"These are like profiles in American courage," an Atlanta gay rights attorney, Greg Nevins, said when we were discussing rural, gay life.
For all the talk of a "watershed" moment in the gay rights movement -- a time when states vote to approve same-sex marriage, when a president equates Stonewall with Selma, and when anti-gay NFL players are quickly and sternly rebuked -- there are still plenty of places like Franklin County, where being gay is seen as shadowy and sinful but where people like Lovett and Jones continue to live their lives, just the same.
They're the real heroes of the LGBT rights movement.
At first, it was easy to blame people in Franklin County for perpetuating anti-gay sentiments. Preachers tell their congregations that gay people are on a path to hell. Parents hear these messages and pass them down to kids who, if they so happen to be gay, are more likely to commit suicide or become homeless than their straight peers. Our society's hesitancy to wrestle with sexual orientation results in real consequences. Forty percent of homeless youth in America identify as LGBT.
But the longer I stayed in Franklin County, the more I realized we're all to blame for this -- gay and straight, religious and secular. We're not quick enough to call out anti-gay hate speech, too ready to tolerate people who are different, to hold them at a comfortable distance, rather than understanding and embracing them. And, in the gay community, we're too shy about being who we are, especially if we find ourselves in seemingly hostile or unwelcoming territory.
On our last day in Franklin County, Ancil and I picked up lunch at the grocery store in Meadville because everything else in the area was closed for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Both of us were sick of on-the-road fast food, so we got packaged salads, pretzels and juice -- not exactly the fried Southern fare you see in most restaurants around here.
I didn't think anything of it until we sat on a bench on Main Street in Bude, near the train tracks, a sawmill churning in the distance, two dudes eating lunch together out in the sun.
Will they know I'm gay by the food I'm eating? Should I have gotten a burger?
Trucks pulled in and out of the nearby hardware store.
Are these jeans too tight? Why didn't I wear a baseball cap instead of hair gel? Do these glasses make me look out of place? City boy. Probably queer.
Legs uncrossed. Shoes planted on pavement. Knees apart.
I know this is stupid.
I didn't want anyone to notice.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.